Change on the cards in Australia
Australia will have a new government, with the centre-right Liberal/National coalition having failed in its attempt to win a fourth successive term. With vote counting still to be completed, it isn’t yet clear whether the centre-left Labor party will take the reins as a majority government or have to work with other parties. Declining support for Australia’s two major parties means a greater diversity of voices are represented in parliament, with many more candidates elected on a promise to challenge the government’s policy of climate denial. The new government should hear these voices and commit to serious action to face the climate crisis.
Votes are still being counted in Australia’s 21 May federal election. Due to the complex preferential voting system used to elect members of the House of Representatives, it may be some days before the final composition of the legislative body is known. But it’s already clear change has come.
The ruling centre-right Liberal/National coalition went into the election seeking a fourth successive term. But instead it lost power on its lowest vote in decades. The centre-left Labor party leader, Anthony Albanese, has already been sworn in as prime minister, although it remains to be seen whether his party will form a majority government.
The vote seemed less a ringing endorsement of Labor, whose share of first preference votes declined, than a rejection of the government of outgoing prime minister Scott Morrison. It also marks a significant erosion of the two-party system that long dominated Australian politics. At the last election in 2019, just six of the 151 seats in the House of Representatives were held by politicians not from the two main parties. But that’s more than doubled: 15 will now be held by politicians from other parties.
Challenging climate denial
Significantly, many of those coming into parliament from beyond the two main parties are challenging the state’s long-running failure to take the climate crisis seriously. Morrison revelled in being a pro-coal politician and in March said Australia’s coal-fired power stations should ‘run as long as they possibly can’.
Australia’s latest plan on greenhouse gas emissions, unveiled at the COP26 climate summit in November 2021, made no new commitments and was widely dismissed as a joke. Australia’s pavilion at COP26 was even sponsored by a fossil fuel company and the government opted out of agreements on issues such as methane emission cuts and fossil fuel financing.
While Labor at least promised higher emissions cuts, it has also long been accused of not going far enough on climate change, perhaps stung by the political fallout of having unsuccessfully tried to introduce climate policies when last in government from 2007 to 2013. During this time, climate policies caused upheaval in both major parties, and the Liberal/National coalition chose a leader strongly opposed to climate action. The Labor government finally introduced a Carbon Pricing Mechanism – popularly known as the carbon tax – in 2012, which succeeded in lowering emissions, but this was quickly scrapped in 2014 when the Liberal/National coalition came back to power. Instead of carbon pricing there are now huge and growing fossil fuel subsidies.
Successive Liberal/National administrations also sought to suppress climate activism. In 2018, when the youth climate movement was on the rise, Morrison criticised young people for taking part in climate strikes. Extinction Rebellion activists and people protesting against a huge new coal port development in Queensland were repeatedly arrested. Restrictions were put on the time and place that climate protests could be held, and laws to criminalise protest loomed. The Liberal/National government grew increasingly hostile towards not only climate activism but also civil society as a whole.
Australia’s climate inaction didn’t stop at its borders. In 2019 at the Pacific Island Forum, the gathering of Oceania’s heads of government, the Australian government pressured Pacific leaders to remove references to coal and water down commitments to limit temperature rise, despite the existential threat climate change poses to low-lying Pacific islands.
Climate denial in both domestic and foreign policy was perhaps to be expected from the government of a country with one of the world’s biggest coal industries and which is one of the highest per capita greenhouse gas emitters, where the vast potential of solar power has been left largely unexploited. Yet Australia is also a frontline state for climate change impact. It’s increasingly experienced extreme weather in recent years, in the form of extraordinary droughts, wildfires and floods that have caused loss of life and livelihoods and imperilled its unique ecology. Not surprisingly, surveys show Australians overwhelmingly want stronger action to cut emissions.
The rise of the teals
Enter candidates demanding that the government take the climate crisis seriously. The Greens are set to increase their presence in the House of Representatives from one to three, taking two seats in the city of Brisbane, including one previously held by Labor’s environment spokesperson. Relentless door-to-door campaigning helped the party advance in a region once considered unlikely to support it, but where people are now sensitised by recent devasting floods and increasingly aware of Labor’s hesitation on climate action.
In the Senate, where half of the members are chosen at each election, the Greens also made advances and could have significant influence.
They weren’t the only ones. One of the ground-breaking features of this election was the rise of the teal independents – independent candidates who ran in Liberal/National-held constituencies, seeking to appeal to more economically conservative voters. They owed their name to the mix of the conservative colour blue with environmental green.
The teals disrupted the status quo, winning several well-to-do and previously loyal Liberal/National constituencies to claim 10 House of Representatives seats. Many winning teals received support from a group called Climate 300, which pledged matching campaign funding for candidates committed to climate action, gender equality and political integrity. Like the Greens, successful teal candidates typically ran active neighbourhood campaigns, which may have told in seats where voters felt taken for granted by the usual winning party.
The newcomers laid bare a division in the Liberal/National coalition – between socially conservative supporters, often in rural seats, and more liberal-minded middle-class voters, predominantly in city suburbs. The Greens meanwhile showed they can take seats off Labor, suggesting the possibility of a pincer movement where candidates committed to climate action can win seats from both major parties.
A different style of politics
Significantly, most teal candidates were women: alongside climate action they offered an alternative to the overwhelmingly macho style that characterises Australia’s politics and a ruling party many women felt ignored by. They also focused on tangible issues in a campaign otherwise largely marked by relentless mudslinging as the Liberal/National coalition increasingly attempted to stoke culture wars and launched personal attacks on Albanese, amplified by partisan media, notably Rupert Murdoch-owned outlets.
Now those tactics have failed, the defeated Liberal/National coalition stands at a fork in the road: does it move back towards the political centre to make up ground lost to the teals, or does it further embrace the Trumpism and climate denialism it displayed on the campaign trail? This will be a key question not just for the future of the party but for Australian politics as a whole.
With many voters seemingly choosing the least worse of the two main parties and others voting for more climate-friendly alternatives, the former ruling party would learn the wrong lesson if it took a rightward turn. Australian politicians should take on board the fact that the only party that decisively lost was the one most opposed to climate action. This means the new prime minister should get serious on climate change – and that means ending fossil fuel projects currently in development and embracing renewable energies.
Prime Minister Albanese should also be held to the commitment he made on inauguration to respect the Uluru Statement from the Heart, the 2017 call from Australia’s Indigenous Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people for constitutional recognition of the role of Indigenous people in decision-making. He should break from bipartisan hostility towards migrants and refugees. And his government should reverse the pattern of antagonism towards civil society and pull back from protest restrictions. It’s time to meet the public’s appetite for change.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The new Australian government should commit to a more ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gases significantly by the end of the decade.
The government should end hostility towards civil society and reverse protest restrictions.
Australian civil society should work collectively to hold the government to account on climate action.
Cover photo by REUTERS/Loren Elliott via Gallo Images